April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday | John 20: 11-18 | Rev. Nancy Talbot–
Throughout the season of lent which began on Ash Wednesday more than six weeks ago today, we been looking at the way the writer of John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus. One of the things we’ve discovered is that of the four different stories of Jesus found in the bible, John’s version is the most poetic, long-winded and confusing. Over and over again, we have heard stories of people having intimate encounters with Jesus under the cover of darkness, at a well during the heat of the day, or in a grief-stricken moment just after a sibling’s death and not one of them have a clue what Jesus is trying to tell or show them.
This morning’s story is no different. Here we have Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female friend, in full conversation with he who is now Jesus, the Risen Christ, standing right in front of her, and she doesn’t even recognize him.
So if you are one of those people who has come to church this morning thinking to yourself or maybe even telling others “you know I kind of get the Christmas story, but I just can’t wrap my head around the whole Easter resurrection thing” you are in good company.
The reason we can’t wrap our heads around this story is because it’s not a story that can be understood with the head. It’s a story that has to be experienced in the soul and lived with the heart.
That’s why the writer of John’s Gospel fills his story with all kinds of beautiful metaphors, signs and symbols because he’s trying to point us towards something that is outside the realm of rationale thought.
So he puts a detail in his story of Jesus death and resurrection that isn’t in any of the three other versions. Only John’s gospel says “Now in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden.” Matthew’s gospel doesn’t have a garden. There’s no garden in Mark and no garden in Luke. John is trying to tell us something by setting his crucifixion and resurrection in a garden.
Even if today is the first time you have ever been inside a church, you probably know that one of the first stories in the bible is a story about a garden. In the center of that garden there was a tree called the Tree of Life. There was a man and a woman and a snake and an apple on the tree that no one was supposed to eat but they did and then everything went downhill from there.
So when John frames Jesus death and resurrection in a garden, one of the things he’s trying to say to us is that this is not just a story about what happened to a Rabbi from Galilee and a bunch of his followers in a place called Jerusalem a couple hundred thousand years ago. This is a story about the redemption of every mistake humanity has ever made, every betrayal, every denial, every act of violence and the countless ways we’ve messed up our lives and our world.
This is a story that says that none of that puts us outside the realm of forgiveness and grace and love. In the sacred realm there is an endless supply of possibility for restoration and renewal. Like the once burnt out fields of Fort Mac Murray now productive again, life finds a way. In the realm of God, grace is persistent.
But there’s more. Not only does John place his story of torture and execution in a garden, he makes the risen Christ the gardener, the one who turns over the soil that has been scorched and plants the seeds again. The one who prunes the bushes and takes what has been thrown away and wasted and uses the compost to coax out tender roots.
Over the centuries artists have done their best to interpret the perplexing story of Jesus resurrection. More often than not, the risen Christ appears in these depictions with a halo over his head or with great light emanating all around him. It’s how we often imagine the miraculous in our minds’ eye. We expect that Mary having already seen two angels in white sitting in the tomb where the body of Jesus had been lying would encounter the risen Christ in similar garb, or perhaps even more spectacularly robed. In fact, if you Google images of Mary in the garden with Jesus, in every single picture Jesus is either wearing a robe, a crown, a halo or both.
But in the early 14th century a drawing of the Risen Christ appeared that was quite different. The image tries to capture the moment just before Mary recognizes Jesus. We see what she sees, an ordinary gardener, shovel in hand.
Those who first saw this image were living in a time of agricultural crisis. There was famine in the land and a widespread shortage of labor due to the ravages of the plague. For people living under these circumstances, being invited to see the Risen Christ as a gardener, meant inviting them to see the power of life in the midst of the death. It meant inviting them to trust that even when the soil is hard as rock and the labourers few, the spirit of life is still at work.
The image also evokes the precarious balance in which ordinary human effort is needed to cultivate and cooperate with the Divine. For restoration, reconciliation and new life to take root we need to do our part. In order for the good news to spread, Christ needed Mary to leave the tomb.
This is not Jesus, the resurrected one who comes to us high and mighty, holier than thou with a show of triumphant power over the grave to save the day. This is Christ, the humble son of a carpenter who comes in quiet, intimate and ordinary ways, bringing life in the face of devastation and death.
This is a helpful image for me this Easter. As the drums of war begin to beat around the world again and hate crimes seem to be on the rise. As we experience the effects of changes to our climate and economic pressure is increasing, it’s difficult to see where our redemption is going to come from. We are so attracted to celebrity and flashy shows of power I think we expect it to come from on high. That’s what makes rational sense to us.
But our story reminds us that its far more likely to come in ordinary places from ordinary people. Like Mary who somehow recognizes the transforming power right within her grasp the moment she realizes it’s her name that is being called.
It reminds us that any change for the better we are going to see in our world, any resistance against the forces set on destroying and denying our basic human rights is more likely to come from humble places, from the grassroots, the place where new life always starts to take hold. It comes when people like you and people like me recognize our name being called to respond to the impulse of life.
It comes from people like 19 year old Malala Yousafzai who just this week stood before the Canadian Parliament and reminded us you don’t have to be an adult to be a leader. Even the voice of a child can be heard around the world.
It comes from the hundreds of thousands of individuals who one by one continue to march in streets around the world to say love will always trump hate.
It comes from people gathering together in prayer for the husband who has just lost his wife and the baby who has a life-threatening diagnosis and the woman who has had a stroke.
It comes from hard working members of seven churches believing they can band together to raise enough money and energy to welcome just a few of the thousands of refugees hemorrhaging out of Syria and giving them a chance to begin again.
The Easter story will never be something we can understand with our heads. It will always be a something we have to live with our lives. I wonder where it is alive in you or where it is you have recognized an ordinary miracle in your midst?
In all four versions of the Easter story, it is the women who first encounter the empty tomb. The first pulse of new life begins among those who appear to have the littlest power.
In at least one version, when Mary realizes she has witnessed a miracle: hope where there was only despair, victory where there was only defeat, life where there was only death she doesn’t just walk to tell the others what she has seen, she runs.
She runs for the joy and possibility of her own life made new. She runs for those who think they have been forgotten and left behind. She runs for those who feel too unworthy to run for themselves. She runs for those who have given up running for anything at all. She runs for life itself.
Today she invites us to join her in the race.